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From the Field: Denver Class-Action Lawsuit against “Homeless Sweeps” Proceeds to Trial

The City Council of Denver passed and Mayor Michael Hancock (D) signed into law a controversial camping ban, known as the “Unauthorized Camping Ordinance,” in May 2012. The camping ban prohibits people experiencing homelessness from sleeping, sitting for extended periods of time, or storing personal belongings in any public place in the city, such as parks, benches, and sidewalks. Violations of the ban carry a maximum penalty of $999 or one year in jail.  Advocates have filed a class action lawsuit challenging the City’s recent “homeless sweeps” and the confiscation of homeless person’s personal property.  The lawsuit will soon proceed to trial.

HUD’s latest Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress lists Denver among the major-city Continuums of Care with the largest numbers of homeless individuals (an estimated 4,000 in Denver), the largest numbers of unaccompanied homeless youth, and the largest numbers of homeless veterans.

Those in favor of the anti-camping law contend that the city has enough shelter beds for all of Denver’s homeless individuals and that the ordinance is a public health and safety measure aimed at bringing homeless people in off the streets. Homeless advocates, however, argue that the ordinance – like others in numerous municipalities across the country - represents a criminalization of homelessness. Advocates argue that criminalizing homelessness is an inhumane approach to addressing homelessness that exacerbates the trauma of living without a home. Some say that criminalizing homelessness represents a violation of Fourteenth Amendment constitutional protections against unwarranted search and seizure and the Four Amendment’s equal protection clause.

Those critical of the camping ban further argue that the City of Denver does not invest adequately in shelter and services for those experiencing homelessness. They argue the ban criminalizes essential acts of survival necessary for life on the streets, such as sharing food, laying on the ground, or covering one’s body with a blanket or piece of cardboard while sleeping. Enforcement of the camping ban empowers police officers to issue “move along” orders requiring people who appear homeless to move from well-lit and safe downtown areas to less-safe, out-of-sight locations in the city’s outlying parks and neighborhoods.  The City has deputized parks employees in addition to police officers and has even employed the labor of prison inmates to enforce the camping ban.

Advocates at Denver Homeless Out Loud (DHOL) report that enforcement of the camping ban has escalated recently compared to the years immediately following its passage, as Denver has increasingly become a destination city for tourists and young professionals (an estimated 1,000 people move to Denver every month) and is experiencing a rapid increase in new development. DHOL leaders say that the increased enforcement of the camping ban has done nothing to provide housing for people experiencing homelessness, but instead has pushed homeless individuals to the edges of the city and into neighboring suburbs.

Daily “homeless sweeps” to enforce the camping ban now take place across the city, often resulting in the confiscation of personal property. Those belongings are then transported to a designated storage facility located on the outskirts of the city open Monday-Friday for only two hours each day. Individuals who arrive at the storage facility to claim their confiscated property are asked to provide state-issued IDs, which homeless people sometimes do not possess, and to describe minute details about the property in question. To challenge the homeless sweeps and property confiscation, DHOL advocates and civil rights attorney Jason Flores-Williams filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of homeless individuals.

The lawsuit has been granted standing in the U.S. District Court of Colorado, allowing the case to move forward despite objections from the City. Certification of class action status by U.S. District Court Judge William Martinez means that every person experiencing homelessness in Denver is a plaintiff in the case against the City. Lawyers on both sides of the case sought immediate summary judgements that would have avoided a full trial, but those requests were dismissed. Proceedings began May 2 with a pre-trial hearing. Advocates and homeless individuals shared a meal and rallied in front of the courthouse prior to the hearing.

The presiding judge in the pre-trial hearing agreed to a motion presented by advocates requesting permission for homeless individuals to enter the courthouse without state-issued IDs, as the lack of IDs could have prevented some homeless individuals from participating in the hearing. The largely procedural pre-trial hearing did not result in any substantive conclusions. The case now moves to a full trial, the date for which will be announced in the coming weeks.

“This class action lawsuit takes the reality of daily life as a homeless person—and the dispossession homeless people often face—to the federal courts, asking simply that the court recognize homeless people’s constitutional rights,” said Terese Howard, an organizer with DHOL. “This case is one of masses of poor and homeless people standing up as a class against an unjust system, saying, ‘No more!’”

For more information, contact DHOL at: [email protected]